MARGARET PRESTON: PRINTMAKER

IMPORTANT AUSTRALIAN WORKS OF ART FROM
THE ESTATE OF THE LATE JAMES O. FAIRFAX AC
SYDNEY- 30 AUGUST 2017


In 1915 Margaret McPherson’s work – which had recently changed and would have appeared strikingly modern in Adelaide – was condescendingly dismissed in England as ‘bringing nothing new into art’.1 Preston later described her despondent state of mind at the time: ‘She feels that her art does not suit the times, that her mentality has changed and that her work is not following her mind’.2

Back in Australia on the dawn of a new decade Miss McPherson put what she later referred to as her ‘first life’ as an artist behind her, married Bill Preston, and changed her working name.3 In full possession of herself, happily married and with a newfound freedom of financial security, she set about asserting her originality. The twenties felt like a period of fast growth and change, particularly in urban centers such as Sydney, where she and Bill now lived. Stepping up to an equally fast pace, and addressing as wide a public as she could reach, Preston pushed a concept of a uniquely Australian aesthetic of which Aboriginal art (which she saw initially in terms of flat design and solid colour) was the cue. Craft-oriented from way back, she was likely introduced to woodcut printing in her art school days at the Adelaide School of Design, Painting and Technical 

MARGARET PRESTON AT HER HOME IN MOSMAN, 1924.jpg


MARGARET PRESTON AT HER
HOME IN MOSMAN, 1924
photograph by Harold Cazneaux
courtesy of State Library
of New South Wales

Arts in 1898 – the school had a strong alliance with England’s Arts and Crafts movement – and she now found her stride with woodcut prints. These went onto the covers and into the pages of popular magazines and journals, fulfilling her wish to reach people outside the art world.4 By 1927 her paintings had taken a stark cue from her prints. The restraint of paintings such as Implement Blue, 1927 and Western Australian Gum Blossom, 1928 arose from the rigors of emulating Aboriginal designs and the restrictions of wood-cutting. She told Gavin Long in 1935, ‘In my search for forms which will suggest Australia I prefer wood-blocking to painting, for the wood hinders facility and compels the worker to keep forms in his composition severe’.5 The 1920s in general saw a closing of the gap between art and craft. This was particularly true for Preston who sheared off the fiddly aspects of late impressionism that had been residual in her oil paintings. In 1950 she looked back, ‘Whenever I thought I was slipping in my art, I went into crafts’.6

In articles for The Home and Art in Australia Preston advocated the role of crafts in developing a truly Australian art. In 1925 she explained, ‘I have studied the aboriginal’s art and have applied their designs to the simple things of life, hoping that the craftsman will succeed where, until now, the artist has certainly failed’.7 For Preston the decorative arts and crafts, with their practical and aesthetic values, would ensure that Indigenous design remained alive and relevant to a modern and cosmopolitan Australia; additionally, a national aesthetic based on craft would have women as its spearhead. She gave lessons in woodcut-printing to women in Sydney, among them the artist Thea Proctor with whom, in Sydney and Melbourne in 1925, she held a joint exhibition of illustrations and woodcut prints that received rave reviews.8

A hand-coloured woodcut from that year entitled Circular Quay, Sydney was included in the exhibition. From behind the iconic Anglo-Dutch tower of the Australian Steam Navigation Company the artist looks over the ferry wharfs towards the city. Recognisable landmarks are two large and blocky buildings just beyond the wharfs, the Farmers and Graziers building and Customs House; beyond those the dome of the Chief Secretary’s Department; to its left the fashionable Hotel Metropole, a clean white shape that stands solidly before the clock tower of the General Post Office, painted a vibrant red; on the left, stretching up to a clear blue sky, the springing green foliage of pine and palm trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens; on the right the boxes of the city. Sydney’s modern artists preferred urban subjects, especially those that celebrated the public life of a city rapidly emerging as the modern core of Australian culture. Preston made regular use of ferries to travel to Circular Quay from her Mosman flat. The monographed boat ferrying into view in the bottom left corner of the woodcut nods to her day-to-day familiarity with that very ‘Sydney’ activity.

Roger Butler has suggested that Preston developed a love of water from her father, a marine engineer.9 Her appreciation is evident in prints such as Mosman Bridge, c.1927 that treks along a suspended walkway across the upper reaches of Mosman Bay. The elegantly cut calligraphy employed for the wooden bridge, the shapeliness of pictorial segmentation encompassing whole groups of flat, coloured objects within firm black lines, and the slightly foreshortened perspective declare Preston’s knowledge of Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). The embrace of Japonisme by European, and later Australian artists and designers has been well documented. It was, for instance, the subject of an exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Australia in 2011, where prints by Preston were some of the most convincing instances of local printmakers adopting Japanese techniques to Australian ends.10

In this, her ‘second life’, Preston found native flowers fitting subjects for an Australian aesthetic. Moreover, their Aboriginal ‘severity of form’ suited wood-cutting. The Home declared in 1929: ‘we have in Australia a very remarkable artist, one who can take her place with the world’s painters of Still Life. Her show [at the Grosvenor Galleries] promises to be historical in the art world of Australia’.11Wheel Flower, 1929, the star of the show (selling nine impressions and appearing on the cover of Art in Australia the following month), was a perfect yet unforced slice of nature showing branches of a Fire Wheel tree growing blithely upwards and out the top of the image. Preston considered it one of her finest prints.12 Its design had been achieved ‘as simply as to all appearances my country is,’13 and its other qualities of sharp flatness, clever use of negative space to suggest the ‘solid light’ of Australia,14 abandonment of superfluous props, and simplification of colour and form, not only represented all that Preston set out to achieve at the beginning of that decade but heralded what she would go on to achieve in the decades that followed. Preston’s ability to ‘craft’ her art took her from a painter ‘bringing nothing new into art’ to an artist who, in the words of Daniel Thomas, ‘was, without a doubt, the best painter working anywhere in Australia between the wars’.15

1. Athenaeum, London, 20 February 1915, p. 172, quoted in Butler, R., The Prints of Margaret Preston, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987, p. 41
2. Preston, M., ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, Art in Australia, Sydney, 3rd series, no. 22, December 1927, pp. 25 – 47
3. Preston, M., quoted in, ‘Margaret Preston’s Two Artistic “Lives”’, Sunday Herald, Sydney, 3 September 1950, p. 11
4. Preston’s prints were printed in publications such as Women’s World, Wentworth Magazine, Manuscript, and Sydney Ure Smith’s The Home, Art in Australia, and Australia National Journal
5. Preston, M., quoted in Long, G., ‘Some Recent Paintings by Margaret Preston’, Art in Australia, Sydney, 3rd series, no. 59, May 1935, p. 18
6. Preston, M., quoted in, ‘Margaret Preston’s Two Artistic “Lives”’, op. cit., p. 11
7. Preston, M., ‘The Indigenous Art of Australia’, Art in Australia, Sydney, 3rd series, no. 11, March 1925, p. 52
8. Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston Exhibition, Grosvenor Galleries, Sydney, 18 November – 2 December 1925; The New Gallery, Melbourne, 24 November – 5 December 1925
9. Butler, R., op. cit., p. 1
10. In the Japanese manner: Australian prints 1900 –1940, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 20 May – 14 August 2011
11. ‘Art Notes’, The Home, Sydney, vol. 10, no. 8, August 1929, p. 15
12. Butler, R., op. cit., p. 16
13. Preston, M., quoted in Long, G., op. cit., p. 18
14. Ibid., p. 18
15. Thomas, D., Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, 2 June 1963, p. 43

HESTER GASCOIGNE
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History and Film Studies, University of Sydney

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